MOSCOW (AP) — In a statement ahead of President Islam Karimov's burial Saturday, Uzbekistan's government hailed the authoritarian leader as a statesman and democrat though he was widely criticized abroad for harsh repression of dissent.
The 78-year-old Karimov, whose death from a cerebral hemorrhage was announced Friday, was being laid to rest in his birthplace of Samarkand, the ancient Silk Road city.
Karimov's coffin was placed in the Registan, the renowned square flanked on three sides by madrasas — Islamic schools — covered in intricate, colorful tiles and topped with aqua cupolas. The Interfax news agency said the square was packed with thousands of men — women were excluded — to hear a mufti give a funeral prayer that said "Islam Karimov served his people."
The body was then taken to the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, another architecturally significant site.
Karimov became leader of Uzbekistan in 1989 when it was a Soviet republic, then held power with ruthless determination throughout all of Uzbekistan's independence. He crushed opposition, repressed the media and was repeatedly denounced by activists abroad for human rights violations including killings and torture.
His Cabinet, however, said in a statement that Karimov "attained a high authority in the country and in the international community as an outstanding statesman, who has developed and implemented a deeply thought-out strategy of building a democratic constitutional state with a civil society and a market economy."
Karimov cultivated no apparent successor, and his death raised concerns that the predominantly Sunni Muslim country could face prolonged infighting among clans over its leadership, something its Islamic radical movement could exploit.
"The death of Islam Karimov may open a pretty dangerous period of unpredictability and uncertainty in Uzbekistan," Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian parliament's foreign affairs committee, told the Tass news agency on Friday.
Given the lack of access to the strategic country, it's hard to judge how powerful the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan might be. Over the years, the group has been affiliated with the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, and it has sent fighters abroad.
Under the Uzbek constitution, if the president dies his duties pass temporarily to the head of the senate until an election can be held within three months. However, the head of the Uzbek senate is regarded as unlikely to seek permanent power and Karimov's demise is expected to set off a period of jockeying for political influence.
Karimov was known as a tyrant with an explosive temper and a penchant for cruelty. His troops killed hundreds unarmed demonstrators with machine guns during a 2005 uprising, he jailed thousands of political opponents, and his henchmen reportedly boiled some dissidents to death.